At Atlas Brew Works, the Taps Are Flowing

Jason Dick
Posted September 25, 2013 at 1:29pm

It would be easy for a new brewery in Washington, D.C., to feel the weight of expectations, given how much this town likes its craft beer. But the team behind Atlas Brew Works doesn’t need to carry the weight of the world on its shoulders. Those involved say they feel if they keep putting out quality beer, the local scene will embrace their nascent operation.

“People are appreciating locally produced food more than ever, and beer is part of that,” said Will Durgin, head brewer and co-owner of Atlas.

Justin Cox, Atlas’ CEO and other co-owner, agreed that Washington’s receptiveness to craft brew, locally produced food, community-supported agriculture and farm-to-table establishments makes now a great time to start pouring their beer.

“D.C. right now is coming into its own. … The whole nation is shifting, and we’ve been very fortunate it’s so receptive,” Cox said.

The Atlas brew crew got a good taste of demand for its initial offerings — Rowdy, District Common and NSFW — on Sept. 14, when it attempted a soft opening for Saturday tastings at the Ivy City operation. No publicity, just spreading the word to a couple of friends here and there.

Nice try. They were mobbed, with about 250 people, including D.C. Councilmember and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells, stopping by to quaff a few and grab growlers for the road.

Ivy City, Here We Come

It certainly wasn’t due to people window-shopping. Atlas headquarters at 2052 West Virginia Ave. NE, Suite 102, is on a desolate industrial stretch sandwiched between New York Avenue and Gallaudet University. It’s across the street from Mt. Olivet Cemetery and a D.C. Public Works lot. But word of mouth was enough, and they were pleased with what they had initially intended as a “dry run.”

“We made some money. Sold some beer,” Durgin said. Perhaps it was the somewhat dissonant idea of a “dry run” for a beer happening that led to the crowded house.

Atlas kept up the momentum on Sept. 21, with strategic spots at the H Street Festival, including at foodie-lover paradise Smith Commons and at the festival tent of H Street pub The Pug.

It plans to continue the tastings on most Saturdays, including this coming one. The sum total of the staff is Cox, Durgin and brewer Dan Bedford.

In making their way in Ivy City — which is also home to New Columbia Distillers, the makers of Green Hat Gin, over at 1832 Fenwick St. NE — Cox and Durgin weren’t attempting to make a statement about helping restore a long-neglected neighborhood.

“There isn’t much zoning in D.C.” for operations such as a brewery, Durgin said, “so our options were limited.” Still, Cox said the response has been positive. “The neighborhood’s been pretty receptive,” he said.

Tapping In

Atlas beers are showing up in a growing number of local establishments, 33 and counting, according to its website. That includes beer-loving places such as Boundary Road, The Argonaut, Meridian Pint, Smoke and Barrel and Pizzeria Paradiso. The T-shirts, artwork and branding, developed by local firm Bates Creative, has an industrial, steampunk vibe. The NSFW, a mind-blowingly bitter but fun brew, (a perfect 100 IBU score for you hop-heads and a 9.2 percent alcohol by volume for those in a hurry on the road to intoxication) is signified by a scorpion in a cog wheel, for instance. The edgy design fits in well with the surrounding neighborhood and many of the establishments that serve Atlas beers.

The District Common, which slotted into Nationals Park right at the end of the Washington Nationals’ last homestand, is likely to be the biggest crowd pleaser. Like other beers made in the California Common style, it’s kind of a combo beer, using lager yeasts that are fermented at ale temperatures. At 5.1 percent alcohol by volume, it’s pretty close to a session beer, and its mellow but lively taste is a pleasure to drink.

Atlas is also partnering with Rocklands Farm in Poolseville, Md., to send its spent grain to feed Rocklands’ hogs.

With such attention to IBU, ABV, fermentation temperatures and even what happens to the waste, the question sometimes comes up: Is beer the next wine? Wine can be so complicated that it turns people off. Could that happen to beer, the official beverage of kicking back?

Durgin has an interesting perspective on that.

“I wouldn’t want to get that far,” he said, adding, “Beer could take itself more seriously and wine could kick back and have a little more fun. Both could learn from each other and meet in the middle.”